The Israeli team, composed almost entirely of Jewish Americans, began the 16-nation tournament by beating host South Korea 2-1 in 10 innings, then pummeled Taiwan 15-7.
Both games were played at Seoul’s Gocheok Sky Dome — a lot like Tampa’s Tropicana Field but with more sunlight — and both featured important contributions from players who have spent time with the Atlanta Braves.
(Update: With the Netherlands’ walk-off win against Taiwan early Wednesday, Israel has clinched a spot in the final eight of the tournament.)
This is the fourth time the World Baseball Classic has been played but the first time Israel has qualified for the baseball equivalent of soccer’s World Cup. Israel was the last of the 16 teams to earn its spot, qualifying in a four-team tournament in Brooklyn in the fall, and entered the WBC as a 100-1 shot to win.
Unlike the defending champion Dominican Republic, Venezuela, the Netherlands and the United States, Israel’s roster isn’t packed with current major-leaguers. Most of the players are in the minor leagues, while others are former major-leaguers, sometimes trying to work their way back to the big leagues.
Team Israel’s ace starting pitcher and former Brave Jason Marquis, who last pitched in the major leagues in May 2015, when the Reds cut him. But he shut out South Korea for the first three innings in Monday’s tournament opener, despite appearing to struggle with his control and release point.
He left the game before throwing his 50th pitch so that under the WBC’s pitch-limit rules he’ll be able to take the mound again Wednesday against the Netherlands, scheduled for 10 p.m. Atlanta time on MLB Network.
First baseman Nate Freiman, who started spring training with the Braves last year, scored the first run of the tournament when Tyler Krieger walked with the bases loaded in the second inning. But Israel failed to get a hit to break the game open, and Korea tied the game in the fifth inning.
Israel also loaded the bases in the seventh and eighth innings but failed to score.
The team didn’t get a hit with a runner in scoring position until the 10th inning, when shortstop Scott Burcham’s two-out infield single brought home pinch runner Mike Meyers from third.
It was a frustrating game at the plate for Team Israel, which had eight hits and nine walks but left 14 runners on base.
It was a different story in Game 2 against Taiwan.
After taking 10 innings to get a single hit with a runner in scoring position against Korea, Israel needed only three batters against Taiwan. Ike Davis singled in Sam Fuld and Ty Kelly to give Israel the lead, and the team went on to score four runs and knock out Taiwan’s starting pitcher before the first inning ended.
Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, an ex-Brave, hit a two-run home run in the third inning, and Korea didn’t get a man on base until the fourth inning as starting pitcher Corey Baker cruised.
An Israel error in the sixth inning led to three Taiwan runs, but Israel responded with five runs in the seventh inning, three of them scoring on a squeeze bunt when no one from Taiwan covered first base.
Lavarnway finished the game 2 for 3 after going 1 for 3 with two walks against Korea. He also threw out a Korean player trying to steal second.
Freiman, who went 0 for 4 with a walk against Korea, went 3 for 6 with a home run and a team-high four RBI against Taiwan. He was one of four Team Israel players with three hits each as the team totaled 20 hits.
Another ex-Brave, Daniel Burawa, who was with Atlanta in September 2015, pitched the eighth inning for Israel, giving up a hit and a walk but no runs.
Now Israel, which was a long shot to reach the quarterfinals by finishing in the top two of the four-team round robin, is sure of advancing even with a loss to the Netherlands in its third game.